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 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Dynamics Web Log for 21-Dec-07
Will hyper-inflation make the dollar worthless (like the Weimar republic)?

Web Log - December, 2007

Will hyper-inflation make the dollar worthless (like the Weimar republic)?

I've gotten this question several times this week from web site readers, so it's on a lot of people's minds.

The moves by the Fed, the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to pour huge amounts of liquidity into the banking system have shocked people and caused them to make comparisons to the Weimar Republic.

This is a reference to Germany in the early 1920s, when the government purposely hyperinflated the currency (the mark) in order to pay war reparations in cheaper marks. (See "The bubble that broke the world" for more information.)

Many people are also aware of the current situation in Zimbabwe, where the inflation rate has been well above 1000% per year for a couple of years. (Corrected 16-Apr-2008)

In both of these cases, the hyperinflation was a purposely self-destructive act induced by printing huge amounts of paper currency and selling it for foreign currency.

However, there's a very important factor: Germany in 1921 and Zimbabwe today had very small economies, devastated by war. The value of a currency is determined by what you can buy with it, and there wasn't much you could buy with it in these two war-torn economies. So this type of hyperinflation is possible in an economy so small that you can print enough paper money to buy pretty much everything that's for sale.

Can the same thing happen in the United States?

It's hard to answer with absolutely certainty, since there are scenarios where it might happen -- a US totally devastated and nearly destroyed by war, for example. But barring these extreme scenarios, the answer appears to be NO.

First, it's pretty clear that they'd have to print billions of paper bills, worth tens of trillions of dollars, to make a dent in an economy the size of America's.

But of course those examples are irrelevant today, because only a tiny proportion of our money supply is created through printing money, as I explained in "Questions and answers about the 'credit crunch.'"

Last week, the ECB dumped $500 billion of liquidity into European banks. It didn't do this by printing 36,400,000 thousand-euro paper bills. It did it electronically, crediting the money to the banks' accounts, just as money that you borrow or earn is electronically deposited into your savings or checking account.

So now the question is this: Could the Fed dump so much liquidity into the world's banks that it would make the dollar worthless?

Because that's the question on everyone's mind. The Fed could lower interest rates, or even buy back Treasury bonds, in order to pour money into the financial system. Could it do so much that it would make the dollar worthless?

The answer to that question is pretty obvious that it can't. And there are many examples to illustrate this.

If you believe that the Fed could make the dollar worthless, then you'd have to answer the following question: How is it possible that the Bank of Japan set interest rates on the yen to 0% for so many years since the 1990s, without making the yen worthless?

Not only did Japan NOT have hyperinflation at 0% interest, it actually had DEFLATION. In fact, Japan's economy is still deflationary today.

Now, if the Bank of Japan can't even end deflation with 0% interest rates, then why would you think that a similar Fed action would end with the dollar in hyperinflation?

Let's take a look at the ECB's huge injection of $500 billion last week. That's a lot of money.

Now compare that with the amount of money that the credit bubble has injected into the world in the last few years -- hundreds of trillions of dollars. That money is just as real as the money injected by the Fed as I illustrated in "Questions and answers about the 'credit crunch.'"

It's the huge growth in abusive credit that created all the bubbles in the last ten years. Since August, the credit bubble has been deflating, and there's less money in the world every day. Furthermore, the rate of loss of money seems to be accelerating.

I used an analogy in an article a few days ago, and I'll repeat it now.

The Central Banks in Europe and North America are desperately trying anything they can to pump the bubble up again. It's as if you were on the beach, and the tide is going out, and the central bankers are running back and forth, carrying buckets of water from the kitchen to the ocean, trying to replace the water that's disappearing with the tides. In the end, it makes no difference at all.

So, with the credit bubble deflating, the value of the currency is deflating.

That's what happened in Japan in the 1990s. The reason that the Japanese currency kept deflating, even at 0% interest rates, is because the enormous Japanese credit bubble from the 1980s was deflating, taking much more currency out of circulation than the Bank of Japan could ever put back in.

And that's why, barring the catastrophic scenario mentioned above, the Fed can't have much effect on inflation, one way or another.

I can't prove this, but I've come to believe that the Fed can influence the inflation rate by a few percentage points at any time, but never any more than that.

Whether the currency is inflationary or deflationary depends on the cycles in the use of credit by the great masses of people, and that's a generational phenomenon. Let's explore that further.

First, understand that mainstream macroeconomics hasn't gotten anything right. Those guys have NO IDEA what's going on, and many mainstream concepts have been completely disproven in recent years. A major example is the one I've been discussing - deflation. Ben Bernanke is known to have believed that deflation was impossible, since a central bank can just inflate the money supply. That's been proven completely wrong by Japan, which still has a deflationary economy after 15 years of zero and near-zero interest rates. Does Bernanke still believe that deflation is impossible? Who knows?

I heard CNBC's resident economist, Steve Lieseman, discuss this the other day. Some guest being interviewed opined that inflation would not increase since there are a lot of unemployed people, so demand for employees was down, so salaries wouldn't increase, so inflation would not increase.

Lieseman "corrected" him by saying that inflation is NOT caused by salaries; it's caused by the amount of money in the economy. That's nonsense, as can be seen from the fact that, to repeat, we've had huge amounts of liquidity in the world in the last few years, with no hyperinflation. The idea that the amount of money in the economy causes inflation has simply been proven completely wrong (except in the catastrophic scenario described above).

Then what does cause inflation?

America's last great inflationary period was the Great Inflation of the 1970s -- the rate was over 10%. Why was inflation so high then, when it's so low now?

As I say frequently on this web site, journalists, politicians and pundits never recognize any generational explanation for anything, even when it's completely obvious. The same is true of economists.

Economists assume that every decade is the same as every other decade. Exactly the same economic policies that work in the 1950s should also work in the 1960s, 1980s, and 2000s.

But that's clearly absurd. People in the 1950s had lived through the Great Depression. They're obviously going to spend and save differently than people in the 1970s or 1990s. That's common sense, but economists have little of it.

America's businesses renewed themselves in the 1930s. Old businesses went bankrupt, and new ones sprang up. Old businesses that survived had to reinvent themselves completely. So effectively, all businesses were brand new by the end of the 1930s.

By the 1960s, all of these businesses were "hot." They were producing brand new products that everyone wanted, and the demand for those products was great. That's why inflation was so high in the 1970s.

By the 2000s, all of these businesses were old, encrusted with bureaucracy. With a few exceptions in the high-tech field, there was no innovation; people just wanted to do their jobs and go home.

That's when we started losing jobs to other countries -- manufacturing jobs to China, service jobs to India. America's great strength was innovation, and if businesses were no longer willing to innovate, then customers might as well buy the same old products more cheaply from other countries.

So that's the pattern: Inflation was high in the 1970s, because innovative products were in great demand; inflation has been low recently, because the same old products can be purchased more cheaply elsewhere.

So is hyperinflation going to occur? Will the dollar become worthless?

To the contrary. We're in for a period of serious deflation, and the Fed is powerless to stop it, no matter how much liquidity they pour out.

In fact, it's already been proven. There was NO inflation in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s, with zero and near-zero interest rates. There was LITTLE inflation the last few years, when the Fed rate was at 1%, and the credit bubble was flooding the world with massive amounts of additional liquidity.

Barring the "catastrophic" scenario, it is almost absolutely certain that we will see deflation, not inflation. (21-Dec-07) Permanent Link
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